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Photo: Andreas Houmann
Photo: Andreas Houmann

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Getting to know Mads Mikkelsen

Mads Mikkelsen is currently starring in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s a galaxy far far away from where Scandinavian Traveler’s Gunnar ­Rehlin first met the Danish actor 16 years ago.

The first time I met Mads Mikkelsen he was standing in a field outside of Trollhättan on the west coast of

Mads Mikkelsen

Lives: Copenhagen
Family: Wife, two children
Current projects: Doctor Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
TV and movie roles include: Rejseholdet (Unit One), Hannibal, De grønne slagtere (The Green Butchers), Adams Æbler (Adam’s Apples), Mænd og Høns (Men and Chicken), King Arthur, Casino Royale, En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair), Jagten (The Hunt), The Salvation, Clash of the Titans

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Sweden, kissing his Swedish colleague and fellow actor Mikael Persbrandt. Now, 16 years later, he’s sitting in a luxury hotel in Copenhagen talking about his very successful international career. Although it’s a career that he’s never taken too seriously.

“I made up my mind very early on not to set my sights too high,” he says. “You can’t control your career. You have to treat each role as an equally important stepping stone. Then one day, perhaps, your career is finished. Then I imagine I could become a carpenter. I’m good at that.”

After that first meeting 16 years ago (yes, I’ll come back to that), I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Mads a number of times. At festivals, parties, on flights and at movie shoots. And apart from a few gray hairs, he hasn’t changed in all those years. What’s striking is how, in such an egocentric and narcissistic industry, he seems to still be as genuine as before his breakthrough.

Photo: Andreas Houmann

“That’s an act,” he says with a laugh. “But to be honest, in all my years in the industry, I’ve not actually met that many divas. Obviously, some people are difficult, but people I meet on the bus can be as well. There are divas, of course, but I don’t know many that are.”

One thing that is different from before is that he’s lost a lot of his Swedish language skills. When he set off at the start of his career to study ballet in Gothenburg, he realized that Swedes were never going to learn Danish. “It was simpler for me to learn Swedish,” he says.

But although he’s pretty much forgotten his ­Swedish now, his Danish is easy to understand, even for a Swede, and our conversation flows well.

When I tell female friends that I’m going to meet Mads Mikkelsen they often say, “Wow, he’s really good looking.” But that’s not something he likes to hear. He doesn’t want to be called handsome and points out that early in his career he very definitely didn’t get roles as the “beautiful boy.” He was a drug addict and drug dealer in the brutal Pusher movies and in Blinkande lyktor (Flickering Lights) he was a gangster who practiced his shooting skills on squirrels and shot cows with a sub-machine gun.

“When they write about my appearance, it diminishes me as an actor,” he says. “On the other hand, women have always had to put up with that.”

Sometimes however, he’s used this to his advantage. Once, a few years ago, we were on the same flight from Copenhagen to New York. Mikkelsen was representing the TV series Rejseholdet (Unit One) that had been nominated for an Emmy Award for best international drama series. A major Danish magazine had just named Mikkelsen the “sexiest man in the universe” and during the flight, he happily autographed copies of the magazine and said to me, with a touch of pride, “I beat Brad Pitt.” Needless to say, Unit One won the Emmy.

“He has repeatedly been voted the sexiest man in Denmark,” says Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård who is Mikkelsen’s close friend. “I don’t understand it. But then Denmark is a very small country (about the size of Kyrgyzstan) and with very little competition. But watching him on screen I like a lot. And hanging with him – having a beer maybe.”

Mikkelsen’s career started at the end of the 1990s when he began a longstanding partnership with directors and scriptwriters Nicolas Winding Refn and Anders Thomas Jensen. His big breakthrough came with the role of the impulsive and emotional Fischer in Unit One, which was a big success in Denmark and Sweden. That was when I did my first interview with him – when he was shooting a short film, Now, where he and Mikael Persbrandt played gay lovers.

His first big international part came in 2004 when he played Tristan in King Arthur, in which he had the honor of being killed by Stellan Skarsgård. The following year, he played Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

“Getting the offer to be in a Bond movie was a big surprise,” Mikkelsen says. “But what I had done in Denmark caught their eye.” The rest is history.

Mikkelsen in the new Star Wars movie. Photo: 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM, All Rights Reserved

These days, Mikkelsen alternates between working on international films and working in Denmark. “Denmark is my base, my culture, my language. It’s necessary for me to work here,” he says. “Being able to travel back and forth is a wonderful situation to be in. If I only worked in Denmark, I wouldn’t be able to make two movies a year.”

When the occasion allows, his family, wife Hanne and children Viola and Carl, accompany Mikkelsen to shoots. But sometime this isn’t possible, or even desirable.

A few years ago, they accompanied him to Scotland for the shooting of the Viking movie, Valhalla­ Rising, but the weather and the remoteness of the locations proved so inhospitable that the family went home. 

When I visited the set, they were filming on a remote mountainside and Mikkelsen was standing half naked in a howling wind surrounded by swarms of midges. “That was a walk in the park,” Mikkelsen said to me at dinner that evening in a nearby hotel. “You should have been here in the first few weeks. We were filming right at the top of a mountain then. It was below zero in the mornings, it was raining and the wind was so strong, the rain was horizontal. I thought I was going to die.”

After his breakthrough in Unit One, Mikkelsen played the cannibal Hannibal Lecter for several seasons in the TV series Hannibal. Would he like to do more TV at home again, now Nordic Noir is so big thanks to series like Bron (The Bridge) and Forbrydelsen (The Killing)?

“Not really. I actually think American TV series are much braver, and not so politically correct. We produce good entertainment in Scandinavia, there’s no mistake about it, but there’s something politically correct about Scandinavian TV series.”

Mads Mikkelsen in Doctor Strange. Photo: IBL / Alloverpress

Today’s conversation takes place shortly after the world premiere of the Marvel movie Doctor Strange in which Mikkelsen plays the villain. And this December he will be seen on the screens again in the new Star Wars movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But he’s not allowed to talk about that movie.

“All I can talk about is what’s shown in the trailer. I play the father of Felicity Jones’s character and I’ve been involved in building something that can be used either for something good or something evil.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikkelsen’s co-star in Doctor Strange says, “Mikkelsen is one of the really great bad guys in the movie world. He’s able to make them three dimensional.”

But Mikkelsen says that he is as happy playing villains as heroes, as long as each character has human qualities. Such as Hannibal, for example.

“Hannibal is very special. He’s a fallen angel. And he’s happy. No matter what happens, he’s happy. I don’t like him, but I liked playing him. He’s a manipulative person. He’s sensitive and he likes fine art. He sees the world from an entirely different perspective to the way others see it. He thinks he sees what’s beautiful in life, but does it on the threshold of death.”


Text: Gunnar Rehlin

Last edited: January 17, 2017

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